What to Know in Washington: Trump Ally in Impeachment Spotlight

Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.

After weeks of Republican complaints that the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry relied on secondhand information, the centerpiece of this week’s public hearings is testimony from a man with a direct line to President Donald Trump.

The political peril for Trump, who was dealt a series of setbacks last week, will be heightened as the House investigation accelerates with three days of public hearings starting tomorrow.

No witness is more central than Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, a Trump donor and a confederate with Rudy Giuliani in back-channel diplomatic efforts for the president in Ukraine.

Sondland, scheduled to testify Wednesday, has already amended his previous closed-door testimony once because of discrepancies with other witnesses. And now there will be new questions for him to answer about Trump’s pressure on the government in Kyiv to launch a probe entangling former Vice President Joe Biden and other political foes of the president.

David Holmes, a member of the embassy staff in Kyiv, came forward last week to tell impeachment investigators that following a phone conversation between Sondland and Trump, the EU envoy told him the president “didn’t give a s— about Ukraine” and that the president only cares about the “big stuff” that benefits him “like the Biden investigation” that Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was promoting.

Testimony from Tuesday through Thursday will come from a disparate cast of witnesses, some of whom could prove pivotal to the impeachment inquiry, including officials from the State Department, the White House national security teams, and Vice President Mike Pence’s office. Read more from Ryan Teague Beckwith and Billy House.

Sondland arrives at the Capitol for closed-door testimony on Oct. 17. -November 18, 2019 Trump Ally in Impeachment Spotlight By Zachary Sherwood and Brandon Lee Got feedback or a tip? Email us at zsherwood@bgov.com or blee@bgov.com After weeks of Republican complaints that the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry relied on secondhand information, the centerpiece of this week’s public hearings is testimony from a man with a direct line to President Donald Trump. The political peril for Trump, who was dealt a series of setbacks last week, will be heightened as the House investigation accelerates with three days of public hearings starting tomorrow. No witness is more central than Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, a Trump donor and a confederate with Rudy Giuliani in back-channel diplomatic efforts for the president in Ukraine. Sondland, scheduled to testify Wednesday, has already amended his previous closed-door testimony once because of discrepancies with other witnesses. And now there will be new questions for him to answer about Trump’s pressure on the government in Kyiv to launch a probe entangling former Vice President Joe Biden and other political foes of the president. David Holmes, a member of the embassy staff in Kyiv, came forward last week to tell impeachment investigators that following a phone conversation between Sondland and Trump, the EU envoy told him the president “didn’t give a s--- about Ukraine” and that the president only cares about the “big stuff” that benefits him “like the Biden investigation” that Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, was promoting. Testimony from Tuesday through Thursday will come from a disparate cast of witnesses, some of whom could prove pivotal to the impeachment inquiry, including officials from the State Department, the White House national security teams, and Vice President Mike Pence’s office. Read more from Ryan Teague Beckwith and Billy House. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg Sondland arrives at the Capitol for closed-door testimony on Oct. 17. Former Adviser Says Aid Was Tied to Probe: A former top White House adviser told House impeachment investigators Ukrainians were advised Sept. 1 that U.S. military aid was being withheld until their president announced an investigation of a company that had hired Biden’s son, Hunter. Tim Morrison, a former senior director of European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council, said Sondland told him how he had informed a high-ranking Ukrainian official that release of $400 million in aid was being linked to the investigations, according to a transcript of his closed-door testimony released Saturday. The House committee also released testimony from Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, who said she found some of the discussion on the July 25 call between the two leaders to be “unusual and inappropriate.” Read more from Billy House.
Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
Sondland arrives at the Capitol for closed-door testimony on Oct. 17.

Former Adviser Says Aid Was Tied to Probe: A former top White House adviser told House impeachment investigators Ukrainians were advised Sept. 1 that U.S. military aid was being withheld until their president announced an investigation of a company that had hired Biden’s son, Hunter. Tim Morrison, a former senior director of European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council, said Sondland told him how he had informed a high-ranking Ukrainian official that release of $400 million in aid was being linked to the investigations, according to a transcript of his closed-door testimony released Saturday.

The House committee also released testimony from Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, who said she found some of the discussion on the July 25 call between the two leaders to be “unusual and inappropriate.” Read more from Billy House.

Happening on the Hill

Funding Deadline: Lawmakers are facing a deadline of Thursday to pass legislation to continue funding the government, before they depart for a recess through the week of Thanksgiving. House and Senate leadership have expressed optimism that both chambers will pass a measure ahead of the deadline, though no continuing resolution has been introduced as of this morning and the House schedule offered few details of the timing of a vote.

“I hope we pass the CR,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on the floor Friday. “I hope it’s as clean as it can be.” The measure will contain some usual anomalies, noncontroversial changes in funding levels or legislative language, Hoyer said.

FDA Pick to Face Questions on ‘Frankenfish,’ Stem Cells, Vaping: Trump’s selection to be the next head of the FDA will face a barrage of questions this week about his views on vaping, oversight of stem-cell therapies and even “Frankenfish.” Stephen Hahn, chief medical executive of the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston, will go before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Wednesday for his first public hearing since being nominated to become commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Alex Ruoff details what to expect.

Risch Warns Erdogan of Sanctions: Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) warned that if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan persists in the deployment of a Russian air defense system, he will move ahead with a sanctions bill. “It is his choice, and he knows the consequences,” Risch said in a statement on Friday evening. Just a day earlier, Risch had said that the Senate should hold off on sanctions over Turkey’s invasion of Syria if Erdogan agreed to give up the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. Read more from John Harney.

Anti-Robocall Agreement Reached: House and Senate negotiators on Friday reached an agreement on bipartisan legislation to combat illegal robocalls, and anticipate a vote on the measure this year. The House and Senate passed separate legislation earlier this year with broad bipartisan support, and staff has been working since August to reach an agreement on provisions from the two anti-robocall bills. Read more from Rebecca Kern.

Democrats Subpoena EPA Over Formaldehyde Analysis: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, sent two subpoenas to the EPA Friday over the agency’s alleged refusal to provide answers about removing formaldehyde from its review program outlook. Johnson said in an accompanying letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler that the committee had suffered through “eight months of delayed and insufficient responses.” The subpoenas were sent to Wheeler and David Dunlap, deputy assistant administrator for the agency’s Office of Research and Development. Read more from Stephen Lee.

Elections & Politics

Democrats Use Super-PACs to Combat Trump: Wealthy Democratic donors are pouring money into outside groups as part of their effort to defeat Trump in 2020, avoiding contributions to a party apparatus that lost in 2016 and to leading candidates who don’t want their help. Outside groups aligned with Democrats have pledged to spend more than $300 million attacking Trump, far more than the $67 million raised by the Democratic National Committee. With little primary opposition, Trump and the Republican Party are already in general election mode, free to spend millions in states he’ll need to win a second term. The Democratic groups are being fueled by seven-figure checks necessary to advertise in battleground states, blunting Trump’s big campaign cash advantage. Read more from Bill Allison.

Buttigieg Wants Public College Free for Some: Pete Buttigieg called for spending $120 billion on the Pell Grant program and making public colleges tuition-free for students eligible for those federal grants as part of his proposal released Monday to improve college affordability. Unlike some of his primary opponents, Buttigieg isn’t calling for public colleges to be tuition-free for all students, or for total student-debt cancellation. He’s said families that make over a certain income threshold should pay at least some of the cost of their kids’ higher education. The plan released Monday focuses on helping lower- and middle-income families. Read more from Tyler Pager.

Louisiana Governor’s Re-election May Offer Lessons for 2020: John Bel Edwards proved it’s possible to buck Trump’s popularity, winning a second term to remain the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. His victory will give political strategists important insights on what it takes to motivate turnout going into 2020, said University of Pennsylvania political science professor Daniel J. Hopkins. “Voters may feel more empowered to back a moderate Democrat,” said Hopkins, who explores the nationalization of state politics in his book, “The Increasingly United States.”

In Louisiana, Trump headlined three rallies to try to drive turnout for Republican Eddie Rispone. Edwards, meanwhile, ran on a record of demonstrated independence from his national party. Read more from Jennifer Kay.

North Carolina Lawmakers Back New Congressional Map: North Carolina lawmakers have approved new congressional boundaries to be used in the 2020 elections. The 13 current U.S. House district lines were redrawn after a state court decided Oct. 28 that the map in place since 2016 couldn’t be used, pending further review. The North Carolina Superior Court for Wake County had found that plaintiffs were likely to prevail in a lawsuit claiming the boundaries were illegally drawn to maximize Republican advantage. Read more from Andrew M. Ballard.

Barr Blasts Democrats: Attorney General William Barr fired a broadside against critics of Trump — and congressional Democrats in particular — while defending the president’s actions. In a fiery speech before the conservative Federalist Society on Friday, Barr said Trump’s opponents are using every tool they can to intentionally sabotage his administration. “Immediately after President Trump won election, opponents inaugurated what they called the Resistance,” Barr said. “They essentially see themselves as engaged in a war, to cripple by any means necessary, a duly elected government.” Read more from Chris Strohm.

Foreign Affairs

Trump, Kim at Odds Ahead of Deadline: The bonhomie between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is nearing a key deadline showing new signs of strain. Trump urged Kim over the weekend to “act quickly” to get a nuclear deal done, suggesting the two leaders could meet again “soon.” His comments came hours after North Korea ruled out nuclear talks without a policy change by the U.S. and reported on a military drill observed by Kim himself.

Veteran North Korea nuclear adviser Kim Kye Gwan told Trump that Pyongyang will no longer give him “things to boast about,” the state’s official KCNA news agency today quoted him as saying. He added North Korea is no longer interested in talks that the U.S. “uses to buy time.” Read more from Glen Carey and Jihye Lee.

Lawmaker Speaks Out Against U.S. Defense-Cost Hike: Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) said Trump is destabilizing the U.S.’s relationship with South Korea by demanding the Asian nation pay about $5 billion, or five times the amount of its current one-year deal, to host U.S. troops, Jihye Lee reports. Meng tweeted a letter Friday asking Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to “devise a better strategy that values the alliance,” adding that such a hike would be “extorting” South Korea. Meng said such a request also “puts U.S. national security and economic interests in jeopardy.” She asked the U.S. officials to “reconsider and engage in good faith negotiations.”

Esper Has ‘Great Faith’ in U.S. Military Justice System: Secretary Esper expressed his faith in the country’s military justice system, after Trump last week pardoned two soldiers convicted in Afghanistan killings, Glen Carey reports. “I’d say first of all that we have a very effective military justice system,” Esper said during a press conference at the Asean Defense Minister’s Meeting-Plus in the Thai capital of Bangkok yesterday. U.S. military personnel “are trained from day one about the laws of armed conflict and how to conduct themselves during wartime,” he said.

China, U.S. Trade Talks Continue: Top negotiators from China and the U.S. talked again this weekend, after signs of concessions from both sides on some of the outstanding issues. China’s Vice Premier Liu He, the country’s key negotiator in the trade talks with the U.S., spoke with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer by phone on Saturday morning Beijing time, according to the Chinese Commerce Ministry. They had “constructive” discussions about each side’s core concerns in the phase-one deal, and agreed to stay in close communication, the statement said. The USTR confirmed the call took place. Read more.

What Else to Know Today

Trump to Tour Apple’s Austin Plant: President Donald Trump is scheduled to tour an Apple manufacturing plant in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, the White House said yesterday. The president plans to visit the plant along with Apple CEO Tim Cook, according to a tweet by spokesman Judd Deere. The Austin American-Statesman newspaper reported that Trump will travel with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other administration officials.

The company announced in September that its new Mac Pro computer will be assembled in Texas after it received exclusions from the Trump administration from tariffs on certain parts imported from China. The visit also comes at a time the U.S. and China are close to finalizing the first phase of a highly-anticipated trade deal. Read more from Hailey Waller.

Facebook, Google Donate Heavily to Privacy Advocacy Groups: Few companies have more riding on proposed privacy legislation than Google and Facebook. To try to steer the bill their way, the giant advertising technology companies spend millions of dollars to lobby each year, a fact confirmed by government filings. Not so well-documented is spending to support highly influential think tanks and public interest groups that are helping shape the privacy debate, ostensibly as independent observers.

Bloomberg Law examined seven prominent nonprofit think tanks that work on privacy issues that received a total of $1.5 million over an 18-month period ending Dec. 31, 2018. The groups included such organizations as the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Future of Privacy Forum and the Brookings Institution. The actual total is undoubtedly much higher—exact totals for contributions were difficult to pin down. Read more from Daniel R. Stoller.

Scalia Says Big Law is Unwilling to Defend Conservative Views: Major law firms are shying away from defending conservative viewpoints in court, a trend that “should trouble the legal profession,” Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia told a group of right-leaning lawyers at a Federalist Society event on Friday. “It is appropriate, admirable, and necessary for lawyers to take on clients and advance positions that may offend some observers,” Scalia said. But some of the country’s biggest law firms appear to be disinclined to protect free speech and “free trade in ideas,” he argued, calling that evidence of a “broad trend” of conservative political views being under attack. Read more from Jaclyn Diaz.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

Stay informed with more news like this – from the largest team of reporters on Capitol Hill – subscribe to Bloomberg Government today. Learn more.

Top